By Gary Marx | Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent
Cuba’s unfinished National Art Schools received a revival four years ago when Castro ordered the project be completed. Before construction was halted in the ‘60s, the complex was one of the utopian vi
HAVANA—Roberto Gottardi stands on the edge of a crater-size ditch, imagining the fulfillment of his dream to build one of the world’s great theaters.
There would be a stage here and an orchestra pit there. The actors would perform to jubilant crowds, and the aging, largely forgotten architect and his colleagues would see brought to completion one of the stunning projects of their generation.
But Gottardi knows the odds are long that his theater and drama school—along with the four other spectacular buildings known collectively as Cuba’s National Art Schools—will ever be created as once planned, even though the Cuban government is boldly promising to do just that.
“I have a lot of desire and enthusiasm, but there are a lot of difficulties,” says Gottardi, 76, eyeing a half-dozen columns that have remained standing since 1965, when four years of construction on the schools halted. “I have my doubts.”
In the decades since newly triumphant leader Fidel Castro conceived the five-building complex, Cuba’s National Art Schools have come to symbolize the arduous path of the Cuban revolution, according to architecture critics, diplomats, analysts and other experts.
After deposing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro set out to forge a new, egalitarian society that would be a model for Latin America. Cuba’s National Art Schools were central to that utopian vision.
Castro reasoned that if art and culture were to be mainstays of the revolution, then Cuba—which had elite private academies before the revolution—must create the finest state-run art schools in the world open to anyone with talent.
And so it was ordered.
During four frenzied years, Gottardi and two other little-known architects designed and began construction on whimsical and daring structures that were in various stages of completion when the plug was pulled.
There was no official announcement and no public hand-wringing. Some experts say the new government needed to concentrate its limited resources on housing, health care and other basic needs. But the decision also marked a turning point in the revolution as the euphoria of the early years proved unsustainable.
“In every revolution there is a heroic period when the new government needs to demonstrate that it is better than the previous government,” explains Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, a prominent architecture critic in Havana.
“The most visible way is through construction programs,” he says. “But after a while, the initial enthusiasm fades and utopian conceptions are reduced by reality.”
However now, nearly 40 years after it was halted, “there is a great deal of embarrassment that they allowed such an enormous project to degenerate, not be finished, or become a ruin,” says one European diplomat in Havana. The original architects—now in their 70s—have been reunited to help with plans for restoring and finishing the school complex, which the World Monuments Fund has listed with China’s Great Wall and Peru’s Machu Picchu as among the world’s 100 endangered monuments.
Workers are clearing debris from long-abandoned buildings, pulling away vines and trees, erecting scaffolds and reinforcing or replacing crumbling columns and walls.
Still, the work is only in its initial stages, and diplomats and experts say it’s unclear how committed Cuban officials are to completing the project.
The story goes that the idea of Cuba’s National Art Schools came to Castro in 1961 while he was sharing a round of golf with fellow revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara at what had been Havana’s Country Club, a symbol of aristocracy in prerevolutionary Cuba.
As they strolled the grounds, Castro and Guevara discussed how the tranquil and pristine club would be perfect for a place where Cubans and students from Third World nations could study the arts for free.
“The idea was to create an art school for the masses,” says Gerardo Mosquera, an art critic in Havana. “It was going to be a showcase for the outside world.”
Soon after Castro’s golf game, Ricardo Porro—then a young Cuban architect recently returned from exile in Venezuela—was chosen to lead the project.
Porro had designed only a couple of residential homes on his own. But he was a staunch revolutionary who saw the art schools as both an architectural challenge and a way of shaping revolutionary Cuba.
“I was thinking that I could make poetry with my architecture,” recalls Porro, now 78 and a resident of Paris. “I also thought that I could do something for my people.”
It was Porro who chose Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, two young Italian architects whom he had met in Venezuela. The two Italians also supported the revolution but, along with Porro, had no experience designing major works.
The three men were given a couple of months to draw up plans for five separate schools—ballet, fine arts, music, modern dance and drama. It was a monstrous task given the architects’ inexperience and the pressure of producing something truly original. The trio got basic parameters, such as how many classrooms and exhibition halls were needed, then were left on their own.
“We had complete freedom,” says Gottardi, who still lives in Havana. “The atmosphere was that everything was possible.”
For building materials, the architects decided to use locally produced bricks and terra-cotta tiles employed in a building technique that had been largely eclipsed by steel and concrete construction.
But in Cuba, steel and concrete were hard to come by. The Catalan vault, as the technique is called, made sense; it could be used to fashion archways and domes out of local materials that were thin, light and strong.
The architects designed the schools independently but according to a central principal: The buildings must integrate with the old country club’s beautiful grounds.
“We wanted architecture that was open and communicating with nature,” says Gottardi. “We weren’t thinking of block-shaped buildings with one entrance, but buildings that were spread out.”
Construction began in September 1961 and continued for several years. Classes began, as well—ballet students pirouetted on the putting greens and music students practiced their congas as walls and pavilions rose up around them. Draftsmen riding in golf carts rushed to the construction sites to deliver the latest plans.
“Sometimes the buildings went up faster than the drawings, and we’d have to go out and measure what was done,” says David Bigelman, a young draftsman on the project who now works as an architect in Paris. “We felt we were doing something wonderful and new.”
Porro designed his rhythmic, multidomed School of Fine Arts to capture the sensuality of Afro-Cubans. In contrast, his School of Modern Dance, with its sharp angles and vaults, expressed the upheaval wrought by the Cuban revolution.
Gottardi’s castlelike School of Dramatic Arts was organized like a small community, where makeup artists, stagehands and others would train in rooms that bordered the main theater, the focus of the entire structure. The School of Music, designed by Garatti, is a 360-yard long, snakelike building that hugs a lush hillside. Garatti also designed the School of Ballet, which the architect initially thought of burying underground. Instead, he placed its cluster of pavilions in a ravine bordering the Quibu River.
Taken collectively, the five main buildings have a surreal and sculpted quality that represent a startling break from the modernist traditions of the era, according to architecture critics.
“It was a departure from all things that preceded it,” says John Stubbs, vice president of the World Monuments Fund. Based in New York, the non-profit group raises money to protect cultural sites worldwide.
It was not long after the buildings began going up that verbal attacks began. Critics argued the art schools were a waste of money and manpower at a time Cuba was under siege from the United States’ economic embargo, the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The design itself also came under criticism. As Cuba forged closer relations with the Soviet Union, Soviet-style prefabricated panels became the architectural norm for constructing massive buildings that were cheap, uniform and austere. Political hard-liners denounced the art schools’ architects as elitist and narcissistic and called their work bourgeois and extravagant. Workers began to be pulled from the construction site and dispatched elsewhere.
Construction on the complex stopped in 1965. Porro’s schools of modern dance and fine arts were near completion, as was Garatti’s ballet school. But much of the music and drama schools was never built.
“The romantic moment of the revolution wanted something new,” says Porro. “After that, they tried to repeat Soviet values. The first thing they did was to forbid my architecture. When you are in a situation like that, you need to look for another country.”
Porro moved with his wife and son to Paris in 1966 and, in exile, became a successful architect. Gottardi remained in Cuba, but his career foundered.
Garatti, who also stayed in Cuba, was arrested in 1974 for espionage, briefly imprisoned and expelled from the country. The Cuban government later apologized to Garatti, who moved to Italy and has struggled professionally.
“It was very, very painful,” says Garatti, 76, who nonetheless remains supportive of the revolution. “It was difficult.”
Over time, the school’s once pristine grounds were overtaken by squatters. Walkways crumbled, roofs caved in and windows shattered. Some sites were looted, notably the ballet school, which was 95 percent complete when construction stopped.
The ballet building briefly housed a circus before being abandoned, leaving Garatti to quip that he is the only living architect who designed a ruin.
“People used the ballet school like a free Home Depot,” says John Loomis, a Stanford University professor and author of the 1999 book, “Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools—Revolution of Forms.” “They ripped out the tiles, the beautiful mahogany wood, and all the toilets and sinks. It’s a very sad situation.”
Despite their condition, most of the other existing structures have remained in regular use. On a recent day, 22-year-old Carlos Alcazar stood in a torn-up room lacking windows and doors, practicing scales on his saxophone. Alcazar trains nine hours a day as a student of the national music school.
“It’s different in Cuba,” Alcazar says. “We have a lot of desire but don’t have good facilities. It’s a shame the school looks like this.”
The long-abandoned project got its unexpected revival four years ago, when Castro was attending a meeting of artists and writers, and someone raised the issue of the disastrous state of the art schools.
“Fidel said, `What are you talking about?,’ recalls Rodriguez, who has written extensively on the schools. “He said, `How come they were not finished?’”
According to Rodriguez, the Cuban leader recalled aloud how the schools had been one of his great dreams at the beginning of the revolution. He then ordered that they be repaired and the complex completed.
Soon after, the original architects briefly reunited in Havana to discuss the restoration effort. But Cuba’s economy is weak, forcing Roberto Sanchez Lagarza, a state official who heads the project, to make difficult choices.
Working out of a two-story home near the complex, Lagarza believes some of the original designs may never be built, while other structures are in such disrepair that it may be more cost-effective to scrap them and construct new, more modest ones.
Lagarza also must contend with what he describes as serious design flaws in two of the buildings. The music school’s 360-yard length makes it impractical as a teaching institution and prohibitively expensive to repair, air-condition and make acoustically sound, he says.
The ballet school, Largaza says, lies in a flood zone along the Quibu River and has been repeatedly inundated by 6 feet of water. A dike is being erected to see if the building can be saved.
Rodriguez and other experts are concerned the government’s interest in the project may be waning four years after the initial burst of enthusiasm. They contend the restoration effort is moving too slowly and that little has been done to repair the main structures.
Porro, Gottardi and Garatti fiercely defend their work and say they still dream their project can somehow be fully realized. All three architects are participating to varying degrees in the restoration effort.
Yet, they, too, seem to recognize the limitations of the times and the need to accept something less than what the revolution offered them so long ago.
“I am not the same person or architect as I was 40 years ago, and Cuba is not the same, either,” says Gottardi, who is working on a plan to finish his drama school. “Things have changed, and architecture must change, too.”